Academic journal article Theological Studies

Mohler, Schleiermacher, and the Roots of Communion Ecclesiology

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Mohler, Schleiermacher, and the Roots of Communion Ecclesiology

Article excerpt

COMMUNION ECCLESIOLOGY is a frequent and important topic in current theological discussion. It has been strongly promoted in recent years by a variety of voices including the Catholic hierarchy.(1) It has been hailed as expressing the most deeply shared views of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.(2) Communion ecclesiology is seen as having significant potential for fostering ecumenical progress not only among Catholics and Orthodox but with Protestants as well.(3)

Yet many theologians confess that they have little notion of what communion ecclesiology is. And even the slightest investigation of communion ecclesiology quickly reveals that it exists in several different versions. Like the concept of "the Church," communion ecclesiology is a diverse and many-layered idea whose historical roots are complex.

This article aims to examine one historical instantiation of communion ecclesiology, that of Johann Adam Mohler (1796-1838) as expressed in his Die Einheit in der Kirche (1825). My study is partly occasioned by Peter C. Erb's recent translation of this work, its first publication in English.(4) Mohler's writings, especially Unity in the Church, have had significant influence on Roman Catholic versions of communion ecclesiology. Although Mohler is not cited in the observations of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's "Some Aspects of the Church Understood as a Communion," the selection and organization of topics, as well as the document's argument, show deep similarities with his thought. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation as well as a strong promoter of communion ecclesiology in his own writings, has referred to Mohler as "the great reviver of Catholic theology after the ravages of the Enlightenment."(5) The influence of Mohler can also be traced on various European versions of communion ecclesiology, such as those developed by Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Karl Rahner, and Walter Kasper.

Positions are often best delineated by comparing and contrasting them with others. As Erb notes in the introduction to his translation of Unity in the Church, the volume can clearly be read as a conversation with the Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher.(6) I have read Mohler's Unity in the Church against the background of Schleiermacher's On Religion(7) and The Christian Faith(8) in order to explore the roots of contemporary Western versions of communion ecclesiology.(9) Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is but one of many figures who influenced Mohler and to whom he was responding.(10) Because of the seminal nature of Schleiermacher's thought for contemporary theology, his influence was notably significant.(11) Although Mohler later distanced himself from Unity in the Church, his first book, many of its concerns remained important in his work throughout his short life.(12)

To explore Unity in the Church in dialogue with Schleiermacher helps to place it in its historical context as a response, at least in part, to the many challenges of the Enlightenment and its aftermath.(13) Such an exploration highlights how Mohler's thought is both linked with and distinct from Schleiermacher's classic Protestant understanding of the Church. One link between the two is the articulation of their ecclesiologies over against what they characterize as the medieval, juridical view. Central to communion ecclesiology both for Schleiermacher as well as for Luther is a focus on the Church as a fellowship of believers united through their relationship with God in a way that emphasizes the necessary but secondary status of institutional structures. If this focus were the sole determining factor in identifying communion ecclesiology, Schleiermacher's approach to the Church would serve as a prototype.

Such would be the case if communion ecclesiology could be defined adequately in a simple abstract sentence. But concretely Mohler's account of what we now call communion ecclesiology stands in contrast to Schleiermacher's approach on several key points. …

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